University of Alberta: Master’s grad thrives on team atmosphere as scientist and athlete

Liam Buchart has always been a team player.

He didn’t let academic pursuits get in the way of playing Junior B hockey in the Capital Junior Hockey League while stickhandling through his first three years in the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta.

Even after junior, when he joined the U of A’s varsity track team as a long-distance runner, Buchart couldn’t help but turn the ultimate individual sport into something that worked towards a goal as a group.

“I was one of the slower guys, but it was a team and I felt like it was my role to push the top-end guys and fuel them by getting them to see how hard I and some others at the bottom were working,” he said.

That team aspect is also what kept Buchart in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

“The thing about Earth and Atmospheric Sciences is it’s a pretty small and intimate program, so you get to know some of the professors quite well,” he said. “Everyone would talk about the impact of their work. Then I talked with Paul Myers, my supervisor, and it just felt like a good fit.”

From predicting weather to modelling climate change
Before beginning his master’s in September of 2019, Buchart’s interest in climate change had been piqued while he worked a couple of summers as a summer severe weather assistant for Environment Canada.

As part of the Federal Student Work Experience Program, Buchart’s job was to track and help predict severe weather on the Canadian Prairies — including a tornado warning in 2017, when he was fresh to the job.

“I was the one calling out and getting reports on tornadoes and big hailstorms, basically helping to create the weather warning that we all see.”

Besides the thrill of the work, Buchart took a particular interest in the prediction tools and the satellite equipment available, as well as modelling. After that first year on the job, he transferred for good into atmospheric sciences, graduated in the spring of 2019 and readied himself for his next step.

Buchart, like many, was only a semester into his master’s program when COVID-19 and studying remotely would come to define the rest of his academic life at the U of A.

“It was a unique challenge — and as a computer modeller it wasn’t optimal — but it was probably one of the least-impacted degrees to get if you had to work from home.”

For his thesis, Buchart modelled the fate of a peculiar sea ice phenomenon called the North Water Polynya, an area of year-round open water surrounded by sea ice located in North Baffin Bay, sandwiched between Canada’s Ellesmere Island and the western coast of Greenland.

“It’s a small feature in the modelling sense — a few hundred kilometres wide and a few hundred kilometres long of open water — but this region, referred to as ‘Pikialasorsuaq,’ the Greenlandic word for polynya, has acted as hunting, fishing and transportation grounds for 5,000 years.”

Moreover, the North Water Polynya provides important habitat for Arctic and migratory species, and home to a wealth of birds, marine mammals, polar bears and fish, which all prosper from a distinctive plankton bloom in the early spring.

“It’s considered one of the most productive ocean ecosystems on the planet, and is critical for a lot of wildlife and people up there,” he said. “That’s kind of what drew me to studying it.”

Polynya forms when the ice moving down the narrow ocean channel jams up to form an ice arch or bridge. All the ice south of this ice bridge is moved out by the wind, leaving behind open water.

Sobering scenarios
Using a selection of climate warming scenarios previously produced by members of Myers’ lab, Buchart’s modelling predicts a complex thinning of sea ice that puts formation of the ice bridge into question by 2070.

Buchart added his modelling also reveals a weakening of the phytoplankton bloom dynamics by as much as 50 per cent in that time, creating a potential mismatch of resources and consumers.

“It’s pretty sobering to see that this important region is really at risk,” he said.

“But our goal is to try to say, ‘OK, this is going to happen in the long run,’ but hopefully once we get this research out to communities, they can use it for planning purposes.”

For his work, Buchart, who is Métis, won an Alberta Graduate Excellence Indigenous Scholarship from the U of A.

“[My Métis heritage] is something I’m really trying to embrace now, and want to work on in the coming years,” he said. “It is something I really feel like I haven’t been involved with enough.”

Buchart finished his master’s in August, just in time to start his PhD in atmospheric science at the University of British Columbia.

This time, however, rather than modelling sea ice, he will use his modelling skills to make predictions about wildfires.

“There’s not a lot of ocean in Edmonton, and that’s why I’m back in the atmosphere side of things, hoping to one day end up back in Edmonton.”

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